There is no more important question when it comes to the future than whether we can keep from blowing ourselves up. Given today’s ready availability of weapons of mass destruction and how often conflict dominates the evening news, it can be hard to be optimistic. But, in fact, there is good reason to believe we can avoid such calamity. While we will not see the end of conflict, fundamental changes happening today point toward a growing ability to manage conflict in more mature and healthy ways.
Appreciating just what is changing requires historical perspective. Until very recently, our collective sense of security and purpose has depended on a universal human tendency—we’ve divided humanity into worlds of us and them, of “chosen people” and “evil others.” Such polarized belief has served an important purpose. It has protected us from life’s easily overwhelming uncertainties and complexities.
In our time, it serves us less and less well. When Richard Nixon was President of the U.S., he uttered these chilling words: “It may seem melodramatic to say that the United States and Russia represent Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, God and the Devil. But if we think of it that way, it helps clarify our perspective in the world struggle.” How fortunate that we did not see the outcomes we very well could have.
With ever more dangerous weaponry widely available, our safety hinges increasingly on an ability to get beyond such simplistic assumptions and think and relate in more mature and nuanced ways. We reasonably ask whether this is possible. We might assume that our historical need for enemies is hardwired, part of our genetic heritage. But if it is, we are doomed. Fortunately, by all evidence it is not.
The ability to engage a more complete—more systemic—picture is, in fact, something we are beginning to see. The fall of the Berlin Wall provides the most iconic moment. Few anticipated it, certainly the suddenness of its collapse. And while leaders have taken credit for it, political initiatives in fact had little to do with what we saw. The cause was at once simpler and more profound. In effect, we got bored with what the wall represented. The absoluteness of belief and the knee-jerk polar animosities needed to support it stopped being sufficiently compelling.
As important as the fact of the Berlin Wall’s fall is what has happened—or not happened—since. With the end of the Cold War, “evil empire” animosities between the United States and the former Soviet Union transformed with unprecedented quickness to a relationship of mutual, if often begrudging, respect. And we have not seen major polarization since (though we must keep our fingers crossed).
Work over recent decades at the Institute for Creative Development—a Seattle-based think tank and center for advanced leadership training—provides perspective for understanding these changes. The concept of Cultural Maturity, a notion developed at the Institute, proposes that our times are challenging us to an essential kind of “growing up” as a species. The ability to get beyond our past need for “evil others” is a key theme in this needed—and now manifesting—new chapter in our human story.
In recognizing steps made toward more mature relations on the world stage, we need to be careful of misplaced self-congratulation—these changes are only beginnings. But it is also important that we appreciate just how far we have come. In fact we have more recently had ample opportunity to engage in “evil other” thinking. The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks provided every reason to make terrorism the new communism and, in the process, undermine any possibility of effectively addressing it. Or worse, we could have made the Islamic East the new “evil empire” and turned predicted new uncertainties into a clash of civilizations. But while leaders have sometimes played the demon card, to a remarkable degree average citizens have not fallen for the bait. Most people today see terrorism as complex and dreadful, but not a product of people who are themselves inherently evil. Seen from an historical vantage, this fact is remarkable. Seen in relation to the question of whether we are up to what the future more broadly will require, it provides important encouragement.
The ability to bring culturally mature perspective to world conflict is not something we see everywhere. It is most common in the post-industrial world, and even there it is far from universal. Social identity in much of the world remains dependent on “chosen people/evil other” beliefs, and as a result, conflict is all too common. And even where we see solid beginnings, that alone does not guarantee a safe world. Today, globalization means that conflict that in times past would only be local often has much wider ramifications. It is quite possible that weapons of mass destruction will again be used at some time in the future, if not by nations, then by terrorist groups. But the concept of Cultural Maturity invites the possibility of a world in which much of war—at least of the sort we have known—is a thing of the past.
(Cultural Maturity is a concept within Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive framework for understanding purpose, change, and interrelationship on human systems developed by psychiatrist and futurist Charles M. Johnston and others at the Institute for Creative Development. More information about the concept and its application to critical issues of our time can be found at the Cultural Maturity blog (www.culturalmaturityblog.net).